Wednesday, February 14, 2007


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/13/07)

A distinctly modern ailment is the crashed computer. If a person is an e-mail junkie or an internet surfer or shopper, life as he or she knows it comes to an end with a crashed computer. Indeed, even mighty corporations have been brought to their knees by crashed computers. “How the mighty are fallen” (II Sam 1:3).

It is as though a connection to the great unknown, a secular vision of Rudolph Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans, is kaput. Disconnect! So it is with an infestation of aphids. Like terrorists, worms, and viruses, aphids come as thieves in the night, slithering with reptilian velocity. “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (I Cor. 15:51), it’s all over. No merely vexing matter, computer junkies and gardeners are left with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, impotence, and fury.

As with liberty, fighting aphids requires eternal vigilance. Unlike grasshoppers, the Norse berserkers of the horticultural world, attacking in wave after wave like massed kamikazes, aphids slink in unawares. This means that gardeners have to play Dr. Snoop, bending over and peering into the underside of things, particularly leaves, scanning for aphids. Arthritis is no excuse. No pain, no gain.

The adversary is a soft-bodied, pear-shaped insect that sucks the sap out of plants with piercing apparati in its mouth. Not a pleasant sight. Not only that but with twin tail pipes (cornicles) attached to its hind end it emits a sweet slime hilariously called “honeydew.” The honeydew goo can ruin glass windows and the finish on automobiles. Also, a fungus called “sooty mold” turns the honeydew black. Grody to the max.

As with all subversives, aphids take on the coloring of plants from which they are sucking out sap. Generally wingless, they grow wings and take flight to other plants in vast clouds, oddly called blooms, when they’ve run out of room on a leaf they’ve colonized. Seemingly, they can colonize a plant or bed overnight. On roses they can be spotted right on the bud before it opens, turning it into a sorry deformed husk. On leaves their presence is signaled by curled and discolored leaves as they suck on the underside of the leaves.

Generally, as with all subversives, worms, and viruses, aphids arrive a few at a time. Winged aphids leave nymphs to suck the life out of the plant with their voracious adolescent appetites. These reproduce exponentially, reaching a reproductive age in seven to ten days with each aphid producing 40 to 60 offspring.

The first line of defense is the water hose. Using it as a syringe, aphids can be washed off the buds and from the underside of the leaves. No gentle sprinkling. Even with vigorous washing, however, this technique isn’t effective unless done repeatedly on an initial infestation.

In addition to washing off aphids with water, they can be sprayed with insecticidal soap, neem oil, and horticultural oils. Pesticides should be avoided because they kill the friendly insects as well as the enemy ones. Since the aphids are sneaks, these sprays have to be applied on the underside of the leaves. Because they kill only the ones on the leaves at the time, the spray has to be applied repeatedly.

Some of the friendlies that pesticides kill are ladybugs, which actually are beetles, non-biting parasitic wasps, lacewings, midges, and minute pirate bugs which have the wonderful scientific name of Orius insidosus. All of these, especially the ladybugs, should be let loose in the evenings just before sunset, lest they fly away, and in small groups over the spring and summer.

The happy news is that gardens with flowering plants attract aphid eating and disabling insects with the flowers’ nectar and pollen. As is always, beauty has the capacity to destroy evil.

Defense against the aphids is the result of eternal vigilance, focused and repeated counter attacks, and counter-terrorist insects. Sadly, there are no fire walls. The conflict is never over, least not until the first frost. However, some things are worth saving, such as gardens, no matter the effort.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

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